IHBC Yearbook 2017

R E V I E W 25 CONSERVING HISTORIC HARBOURS HILARY WYATT Historic harbour infrastructure is in the front line of climate change yet recent research suggests that the conservation sector is poorly engaged with this aspect of the UK’s heritage. Hilary Wyatt demonstrates the urgent need to extend understanding, promote co-operation and provide specialist guidance. The damage inflicted by a succession of exceptionally severe weather systems affecting the south and west coasts of the UK and Ireland in the winter of 2013–2014 exposed the vulnerability of coastal built heritage, highlighting the profound challenges that lie ahead in attempting to manage the predicted effects of climate change. A chain of Atlantic depressions generated intense wave activity. Ocean swells coincided with unusually high Spring tides to produce storm surges which inundated sheltered deep-water ports such as Plymouth and Cork and caused critical damage to a number of small Cornish harbours. At St Michael’s Mount part of the historic causeway was lost. At Porthleven the timber baulks across the entrance were smashed, allowing destructive breakers to penetrate the inner harbour. At Portreath the forward observation hut was swept away in minutes (page 26). At Mullion the southern breakwater was damaged and granite copings thrown into the harbour. Elsewhere parapets, slips and sea walls were damaged and undermined in successive storms. Our coastal landscape contains some of the most popular heritage settings in the UK and small-scale tidal harbours continue to draw large numbers of visitors attracted by their distinctive character and relationship with the wider landscape. Harbours are often viewed as timeless but the coastal zone is one of dynamic change. Unfortunately, research suggests that the public has a low level of informed engagement with maritime issues and that, even more alarmingly, a similarly low level of engagement exists among the wider conservation sector. A 2014 report commissioned by Historic England, ‘Ports and The Historic Environment’ (see Further Information), concluded that the relationship between the conservation and port sectors was generally weak and reactive. There is very little specific guidance on the management of historic marine infrastructure (with the exception of Old Waterfront Walls , see Further Information). Texts by engineers such as John Smeaton, LF Vernon-Harcourt and Thomas Stevenson are invaluable in understanding historic construction methods, but the lack of accumulated baseline knowledge reflects in a lack of specific guidance from heritage bodies on the repair and adaptation of historic harbour settings. Consequently, list descriptions and conservation area appraisals often fail to analyse the significance of harbour structures and settings with the same confidence shown in the assessment of townscape. Furthermore, the overwhelming designation of marine infrastructure at Grade II excludes many structures from the Heritage at Risk register. This prevents any overall assessment of the risk to coastal heritage along this exposed coastline. Finally, while the Port Marine Safety Code imposes a ‘duty to maintain’, there is no such duty within the principal heritage acts and destruction by natural forces falls outside the consent process. It remains unclear how these sites can be sustainably managed in the long term or how ready the conservation sector is to participate in a debate that will Storm Frank, December 2015: waves break over the finger pier and Bickford-Smith Institute at the entrance to Porthleven Harbour, Cornwall (Photo: Colin Higgs, www.portreathstudio.com)